Enjoy this special guest post by the wonderful, Moriah Conant.
“I need to tell you something. I’m struggling with severe anxiety, and I don’t know what to do. I think I need to go to therapy.”
My self-protective instincts have always urged me to keep my vulnerabilities hidden. So I did just that, until 17 years of repressing my problems became too much to bear. When I first opened up to friends and people at church about the panic attacks I had been experiencing for months, I was repeatedly given the same verse in response.
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” Philippians 4:6 (NIV)
The speakers always meant well. With the best of intentions, they encouraged me to put my trust in God, shifting my focus from my anxiety to the peace promised to those who committed their lives to Christ.
During my senior year of high school, I had almost nightly panic attacks. It was exhausting to sit in my bed with my heart racing, my thoughts spiraling into the worst catastrophes I could imagine, and my body drenching me in sweat. The attacks lasted for hours, disrupting the time that I had to sleep. Since I shared a bedroom with one of my younger sisters, I waited until she fell asleep before turning on the small lamp next to me. Shielded by her bed above, I would sit cross-legged in my own bed praying, journaling, and crying until my exhausted body caved into sleep.
The lack of control I felt regarding both my body and mind left me hopeless. And though I tried to force the thoughts down, the hopelessness bred suicidal ideation. I would try anything. If praying more meant permanent relief from panic attacks, I was on board. Give me all the tips on how to improve my relationship with God!
I wanted the answer to be that clear-cut. I doubled down on my efforts to be ‘Christian enough’ to receive healing. Focusing on intentionality, I created new habits. Instead of listening to music on my 30-50 minute commute, I prayed as I drove. Pinterest searches gave me images of peaceful nature scenes overlaid with verses to conquer the anxiety that threatened to consume my life. I went to see a therapist every few weeks and tried to unpack why I was so anxious. Friendships with Christian friends provided accountability for my newly formed habits.
But nothing helped. The darkness terrified me. Why wasn’t this spiritual fix strong enough to bring relief?
I felt broken and filled with confusion, believing prayer should be enough to banish the anxiety. When it didn’t work, I blamed myself. While everyone around me seemed to be doing just fine, I began to internalize the thought that something was terribly wrong with who I was at my core. The shame I felt about my brokenness increased the power of the suicidal ideation swirling around in my mind and made me feel further isolated from the people who seemed to have everything together. I wanted to be honest about how I was doing but was scared that my truth meant I had failed.
So I said nothing. I kept burying the reality of my mind because it felt catastrophic for others to hear about my failure. I faked well-being in the hope that it would eventually be true, but in reality, I was just exhausted. If someone did ask how I was doing, I would offer up the always socially acceptable response of “I’m just tired.” In a culture that is continually moving it is normal to rarely feel rested.
What I didn’t know was that I had lived with chronic depression and anxiety for over 17 years before I went to counseling for the first time. This was not just surface-level anxiety that I was dealing with. My physical body was finally fighting against the emotions that I tried my best to stifle. The panic attacks were not the problem that needed fixing, but merely the loudest symptom of the issues.
Although God is powerful enough to remove all pain and suffering, sometimes They don’t. I don’t know why and maybe I never will. I will most likely live with chronic mental illnesses for the rest of my life.
The biggest (though not only) danger in responding to mental illness with the instruction to pray is that it isolates individuals from community. I was already very invested in my relationship with God. But when people looked at me hopefully and said that prayer would help, I didn’t want to let them down. And so I tried even harder. I yearned to experience healing through prayer for their sake, as well as my own, but it never came. I felt like my darkness had to be kept a secret. When people tell their testimonies or stories of healing in the church, it seemed like there was always a tidy ending. Surely I was the only person that wasn’t okay.
I almost believed that thought to the point of death. Life seemed to be getting worse, not better, and Paul wrote that “…to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Maybe I was too fundamentally broken to experience healing.
Thankfully, I had mentors, residence life staff, and mental health professionals with me through the unraveling. For about three years I went to counseling weekly to unpack the issues I had ignored for years. I needed therapists who challenged my detrimental internalized beliefs about myself. These professionals were trained in how to sit with anxiety and depression. I wasn’t allowed to continue isolating myself, pretending I was okay. They taught me how to ask for help (and at times forced me to check in with people who care about me). They reminded me to be honest when I wasn’t doing well and gave me grace when I didn’t have the strength to reach out.
After we decided to add psychotropic medications to my regimen, my therapist went with me to my first appointment with a psychiatrist. It was much less intimidating to face medications with a friendly face by my side. I was slowly expanding my community and resources through therapy.
My therapists also encouraged me to meet with mentors who cared about my emotional and spiritual well-being. I sat across from men and women who asked me how I was really doing. And whether I would express grief, anger, frustration, or joy, they made space for my emotions. When I felt distant from God, they prayed for and with me. If I couldn’t shake the thoughts of suicide in the middle of the night, these were the people on my safety plan that I could call.
Prayer is powerful. I believe that it is a direct way for Christians to connect with God. But if we are not willing to sit with people in their pain, and walk with them as they slowly heal, our encouragement for prayer will ring hollow. In what I’m guessing is one of the first occurrences of this typical response, Job’s friend Eliphaz says in Job 5:8, “But if I were you, I would appeal to God; I would lay my cause before him.” Job’s response in chapter 6 is very blunt- he is praying, specifically for God to end his life. When we respond to people’s deep grief with the quick answer to pray more, we miss out on the richness of the process of healing.
Moriah (she/her) currently resides in Southern California where she enjoys the sunshine, drinks copious amounts of iced coffee, and hangs out with her cat. She is pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology and occasionally writes in her nonexistent free time.